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Amid series of threats, Brookline synagogues look to balance “caution and joy”

The front of Temple Beth Zion in Brookline, a Brick building with white pillars. Two signs read "Black Lives Matter To Us" and "Stand With Us Against Anti-Semitism"
Temple Beth Zion on Beacon Street in Brookline. Photo courtesy of TBZ.
August 24, 2023  Updated August 29, 2023 at 9:43 p.m.

Rabbi Claudia Kreiman was prepared when police showed up at Temple Beth Zion during services on August 18, 2023.

That Wednesday, she had learned for the first time what “swatting” was. On Thursday, she had gone through a training about it. And on Friday, she said, “we were swatted.”

The Anti-Defamation League defines swatting as “a deliberate and malicious act of reporting a false crime or emergency to evoke an aggressive response (often a SWAT team) from a law enforcement agency.”

Brookline police received a call about a bomb threat at the Beacon Street synagogue Friday evening, part of what the ADL and authorities say is a nationwide trend. According to the ADL, a group of online trolls have called in threats to synagogues in at least 12 states over the summer, targeting synagogues which livestream their services.

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At Temple Beth Zion, Kreiman calmly stopped services and helped evacuate the congregation, while police searched and secured the building. The call was quickly deemed to be a hoax. Police are investigating, and spokesperson Paul Campbell said the number used has been linked to at least one other similar incident.

“We had just sent an email three or four hours before that, alerting the community to what had been happening in other places,” said Kreiman, whose mother was one of 85 people killed in a bombing at a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, Argentina in 1994. “Because we had just gone through this training, I knew this could happen, but I couldn’t believe it was happening to us.

Other Jewish communities in Brookline are weighing how to respond to the increasing anti-semitic threats as the Jewish High Holidays, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, approach in the fall.

Rabbi Andrew Vogel, senior rabbi at Temple Sinai in Coolidge Corner, said that his community’s leaders are getting prepared to deal with any possible incident, but otherwise moving ahead with High Holiday services as usual.

“The best thing we can do is to be trained to know how to respond, but also not let people who are filled with hate have an outsized impact on our religious observance,” said Vogel. “We’re trying to find the right balance between caution and joy and celebration.”

The nonprofit Combined Jewish Philanthropies offers training to Jewish community leaders on how to provide security and handle threats like Friday’s in Brookline. Brookline police have also been closely engaged with synagogues in town.

Kreiman said that, for now, Temple Beth Zion is going to stop livestreaming its services on Youtube, though it will still offer remote access via Zoom, which is easier to control.

On Friday, while waiting for police to secure the building, Beth Zion’s congregation danced, sang and prayed outside, while the lights of a firetruck flashed behind them.

On Saturday morning, Beth Zion continued with its regularly-scheduled services.

“It was very important to us to make sure we could go back to shul the next day, and we did, and we were very glad,” said Kreiman. “We had a super well-attended service on Shabbat morning with a lot of celebration. That’s what we’re going to keep doing, because that’s what we do. When someone tries to scare us, we say no, and we keep going.”

Video: Services continue outside on Friday night at Temple Beth Zion, with firetrucks in the background.